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New technology raises access policy issues.

Municipalities are subject to both the boon and the bane of progress. Some would say that for every invention there is a need for equal and opposite prevention. In the case of computer technology, which makes possible many benefits to society, science fiction writrs and othrs have foretold an ominous future of machine intelligence ruling the world and Big Brother looming over your electronic mailbox.

It's true that the capabilities of computers seem to be multiplying, and their identity within our organizations has changed. They ar not arcane storage devices any longer, but sleek and powerful tools that all of us -- elected and appointed officials, staff, citizens and businesses -- can use to improve the quality of life in our communities.

This more enterprising view supports the benefits to be derived from computers, while ensuring that safeguards exist to keep us firmly in the driver's seat.

Local government policymakers should understand that while technology itself can provide some of these safeguards, it is essential to step up and boldly accept the responsibility to direct the automation wave toward socially and politically important goals that serve the people in our communities.

What must be preserved at all costs is the right of the people to see and use their government's information. In an information age, information is an asset, a key to power, knowledge, and revenue. City information is an asset held in public trust, developed at taxpayer expense to promote better governance and service delivery.

Here's an example of how technological innovation can help your city use computers to improve information and service delivery: Let's say a real estate company annually purchases your jurisdiction's assessor records on magnetic tape for the price of the tape ($50), and also makes weekly, sometimes daily requests to your Records Division for update information. This year, your Records Division staff tells the company that they have the option to use a new service to obtain 24-hour a day direct online access to the same database for a $40 monthly service fee.

The advantages for both the real estate company and your city look like the proverbial "win-win:" quicker, round the clock access to up-to-the-minute data for the real estate company, and fewr telephone and walk-in inquiries for your staff, allowing them to give more attention to other projects and constituent services. In addition, the service fee allows you to provide the service without raising taxes.

Public Technology, Inc., as the technology subsidiary of NLC, has conducted research projects that confirm that computers can effectively improve government information and service delivery while generating revenue. Indeed, it's becoming common to read "success stories" about loval government computer services. [See the accompanying box for just a few examples.] But we have also raised some concerns that are best brought to the attention of policymakers for consideration and action.

Here are som basic facts about local government information resources that we have gleaned over the past four years of information access research projects:

Taxpayers have a significant investment in the collection and maintenance of city information. As we become a more computer -oriented society, demand for direct electronic access will grow. Demand for nhanced access and products is especially strong from commercial customers, crushing our already burdened city resources, and diminishing the quality of services to city agencies, citizens, and the media. Many state laws governing information access do not currently allow cities to charge fees to cover the entire cost of providing information, resulting in a taxpayer subsidy of the private sector. Local officials are increasingly concerned about non-government uses of public records -- particularly privacy and confidentiality issues.

No surprises here: technology implementation leads inevitably to policy implications.

The time has come for local officials to understand the policy questions that are being raised by the use of public (city) information resources, to acknowledge the importance of information policy, and to act decisively to protect local government interests.

NLC's Transportation and Communications committee has selected information access as one of their primary research areas this year. This is particularly important because:

1. Legislatin is now pending in many states that may restrict cities' ability to assure public record access as well as entrpreneurial uses of this asset. Status of this legislation on a state-by- state basis is just beginning to be explored.

2. Possible consequences of inaction are severe: revenues losses and productivity and service reduction.

For those of you who are engaged in this debate already, stay tuned to the T&C deliberations. They will be focused on finding a simple set of strategies that you can use at once to:

insure the widest possibl access to public record information;

safeguard the security of public records; and

protect the taxpayer's investment in collecting, storing and maintaining public record information.

For those of you who have not yet seen the issue of information ownership and use emerge, keep looking . . . ask around . . . . Or, better still, become proactive. Help ensure that the rights of citizens are preserved, taxpayer investments are not turned to unfair subsidies for special interest groups, and that technology is indeed asked to play an empowering role for our hard-pressed cities.

You can be sure that PTI will continue our efforts in the technology and business creation arena, and will continue to support NLC's legislative process. Too much is at state to do less.
COPYRIGHT 1992 National League of Cities
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes related information on computers being used by cities; Special Report: Taking the Computer Plunge
Author:Toregas, Costis
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Jun 15, 1992
Previous Article:New technology requires innovative approaches for cities' information access improvements.
Next Article:Developing telecommunications framework.

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